Concerned over the huge loss of life and property, the Supreme Court on Monday asked the Centre and the Manipur government to step up relief and rehabilitation efforts for those hit by ethnic violence in the north-eastern state, besides protecting places of worship, many of which were targeted during the mayhem.
While listing out steps taken to deal with the situation, the Centre told a bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud that no untoward incidents have been reported in Manipur in the last two days and the situation there is gradually returning to normalcy.
More than 50 people have been killed in violent clashes between the tribals living in the Manipur hills and the majority Meitei community residing in the Imphal Valley over the latter's demand for Scheduled Tribe (ST) status. Over 23,000 people have been rescued and sheltered in military garrisons and relief camps.
Terming the aftermath of the violence ”humanitarian issues”, the apex court emphasised that due arrangements must be made in the relief camps and the people sheltered there be provided with basic amenities like food, ration and medical facilities.
”We are concerned very deeply about the loss of lives, about the loss of properties and the government is taking steps....,” the bench, also comprising Justices P S Narasimha and J B Pardiwala, said.
The bench said, having expressed its concerns, it must leave it to the government to take action because ultimately the court can't say that go to this area with so much of equipment.
The top court said it has no reason to doubt what the government is doing to tackle the situation.
The bench said the authorities should ensure that due arrangements are made in relief camps for providing all basic amenities, and make endeavour for rehabilitation of those displaced and protect places of religious worship.
Mehta informed the bench that 52 companies of the central armed police forces (CAPF) and 105 columns of the Army/Assam Rifles have been deployed in Manipur and flag marches have been conducted in the disturbed areas.
He said a senior former police officer has been appointed as security advisor by the state and another senior officer has been repatriated yesterday from central deputation to serve as the chief secretary to the Government of Manipur.
Mehta said peace meetings have been conducted and a constant vigil is being maintained.
He said helicopters and drones are being used to monitor the situation in addition to extensive deployment of security forces. Relief camps have been opened for displaced persons where ration and medical help are being provided.
The top law officer also said movement of stranded persons is being facilitated by the security forces.
The bench noted Mehta's submissions that as a consequence of the measures taken by the authorities, no violence has been reported in the state during the previous two days. The situation is gradually returning to normalcy and curfew was relaxed for few hours during the last two days, it noted.
”Let everything calm down. I would request your lordships in the larger interest that let this be posted after a week or 10 days and let us see what happens,” he told the bench.
”How many relief camps do you have presently and roughly how many people are in the relief camps?” the CJI asked, adding, ”We would like to know what kind of arrangements have been made in the relief camps because these are humanitarian issues in terms of food, medication and security. Who is running these relief camps? Are they CAPF or are these Army relief camps?”
The bench said another aspect is about people who have been displaced.
It asked whether the government is trying to bring these people back to their homes gradually.
The apex court was hearing a batch of pleas on the Manipur situation including one by a ruling BJP MLA challenging the high court order on the issue of Scheduled Tribe status to the Meitei community and a PIL by a tribal outfit for an SIT probe into the violence that rocked the north-eastern state last week.
The clashes between Meiteis and tribals started in Churachandpur district last Wednesday.
The tribals are opposing reservation to the majority Meiteis following the March 27 Manipur high court order that asked the state government to send a recommendation to the Centre within four weeks on the demand for ST status to the community.
During the hearing, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for one of the petitioners, raised the issue of evacuation of people from certain areas of the state.
”Let us not say something which might have an adverse impact, intended or unintended. We have to be very, very careful,” the solicitor general said.
When one of the advocates said he is representing the original petitioners (who sought quotas for Meitei community) before the Manipur high court, the bench told him he ought to have shown to the high court two constitution bench judgements showing it does not have the power to recommend reservation.
”You never told the high court that this power the high court does not have. These are presidential powers...,” the bench said.
It said since Mehta has maintained action is being taken by the state before a competent forum with regard to reservation for Meiteis, the apex court will not go into it any further.
”We must give that forum an opportunity to correct itself,” it said, adding the top court has made its concerns very clear to the solicitor general.
The bench said right now, its immediate target is "protection, restitution and stabilisation" and it is concerned about only these humanitarian problems.
”All that we are trying to tell you is, you may flag your concerns in an appropriate manner so that these proceedings before the Supreme Court do not become another ground for de-stabilising....,” the bench told the petitioners.
The bench noted in its order: ”The solicitor general has stated that the state of Manipur is taking appropriate steps in respect of order of a single judge of the high court dated March 27, 2023 by moving the competent forum in that regard.”
The bench, while taking note of Mehta's submissions, posted the pleas for further hearing on May 17, and asked the Centre and the state to file updated status reports.
Dinganglung Gangmei, BJP MLA and chairman of the Hills Area Committee (HAC) of the Manipur legislative assembly, in his appeal before the apex court, has contended that the "proceedings before the high court were vitiated on account of not making the HAC a party” and the HC order created tension and led to violence between the two communities.
Meiteis account for about 53 per cent of Manipur's population and live mostly in the Imphal valley. Tribals -- Nagas and Kukis -- constitute about 40 per cent of the population and live mostly in the hill districts.
The PIL filed by an NGO 'Manipur Tribal Forum', through advocate Satya Mitra, said it has moved the top court under Article 32 of the Constitution on account of the extreme situation arising out of the attacks on the tribal community in Manipur by a "dominant group".
One more appeal has been filed by the chairman of the Hill Area Committee challenging the order dated May 3 of the High Court in which notices were issued to them in a contempt petition filed by members of the Meitei community.